COLUMBUS, Ohio – Demands by striking Chicago teachers for more nurses, librarians and social workers are highlighting concerns that resonate in high-poverty school districts nationwide, where shortages of support staff leave educators feeling stretched.
Unions and professional groups for such employees say those jobs often are lower priority when budgets are tight, but their absence can have profound effects on student learning and teachers’ work. They contend support staff is vital to properly address everyday student issues such as physical and mental health problems or homelessness.
In Chicago, the nation’s third-largest school district, the teachers who have been out on strike since last Thursday are seeking commitments for support staff hiring alongside other demands including higher pay and affordable housing citywide. The demands are part of the union’s “social justice” agenda.
Bridget Nelson, a social sciences teacher at a magnet high school in Chicago, said her school is lucky to have a nurse most days, but a social worker still is responsible for more than 2,000 students.
“Adolescence is a challenging time, and we worry about depression and stress like a lot of educators,” Nelson said. “Some students have support at home, but others don’t. They should have support at school to help give them what they need.”
The support-staff issue has come up elsewhere in spring protests by thousands of educators in North Carolina and South Carolina; in Minnesota, where a state survey recently found an increase in students’ mental and emotional health concerns; and in strikes in California, where teachers won promises for hundreds of additional nurses and more counselors in Los Angeles schools and more psychologists and special education instructors in Oakland.
Shortages are causing problems in schools across the country, said Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.
While discussing labor unions on a visit this month to a government class in an urban Ohio high school, Cropper said she asked the students what they would want prioritized in negotiations. A girl who had attempted suicide answered first: a counselor. Another student wanted a nurse.
“We’ve got kids who are dealing with thinking about committing suicide or coming to school hungry or watched a domestic abuse situation over the weekend,” Cropper said. “We can’t possibly begin to think that we’re going to teach them something that’s going to stick with them until we’ve dealt with these other issues.”
Most teachers don’t have specific training to tackle those sorts of concerns, so they’re advocating for schools to add more colleagues who do, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said.
The American School Counselor Association recommends one counselor for every 250 students but has found the average ratio to be nearly double that. The National School Nurses Association’s most recent estimates, from a study published early last year, indicated less than 40% of schools had a full-time nurse and about a quarter didn’t employ one at all.
In those cases, teachers may have to assess and address issues such as gym class injuries, and preventive care can dwindle, said Donna Mazyck, the executive director of the nurses association.
At John Tartan Elementary School in North Las Vegas, an assistant trained in basic first aid often handles minor injuries and distributes basic medications because the nurse splits duty at multiple schools, said Marie Neisess, a veteran teacher and reading specialist there.
The school of 400-plus students also has a counselor, a social worker and a psychologist, but they struggle to keep up with the needs of the student body, which includes children facing challenges such as severe behavioral problems, foster care or a parent’s incarceration, she said.
“We’re all kind of putting Band-Aids on the very big problem that we have here,” Neisess said.
In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot had campaigned with an education plan that included staffing schools with full-time nurses, social workers and librarians, and enabling students to get mental health services. The district has committed to hiring more nurses, social workers and support staff but objected to making that part of the teachers’ contract.
The union also has expressed concern about the various roles counselors are expected to fill, including as substitute teachers and lunchroom help, and asked for contract language that spells out that people will only be asked to do the jobs for which they are hired.
Pushing for something enforceable in writing makes sense to Matt Mandel, a middle-school English teacher in the Philadelphia School District, who said the local union there has fought to have a nurse and counselor at each school.
“In these urban districts like Philadelphia and Chicago, our kids need more,” Mandel said, “and we always find ways to justify giving them less.”
Associated Press reporter Kathleen Foody in Chicago contributed to this report.